Yevgeny sat hunched on a rickety black stool. His gut, pulling the black tank top taut over his shoulders, sagged deep into the dense plywood counter. All of him sagged, a bag of rotting potatoes barely held together by droopy, gray skin. His dark eyes sagged, the sketchy two-anchor tattoo flag on his bicep sagged, his dark, greasy, thinning curly black hair fell over his gray-pasty face, sagging down his neck and to where his shoulders should have been. Even the ash from his Lucky Strike sagged, almost touching the last bit of black formica of the counter, near a decrepit adding machine that hadn’t been used in years.
The call came in the middle of another of Yevgeny’s stories about St. Petersburg, the old St. Petersburg, the beautiful cathedral of a city on a river back home.
The call came. For Boris, the timing couldn’t have been better. Yevgeny’s stories had long ago become tiresome, flat and stale. Our Lady of Kazan. The Church of the Resurrection. The bridges over the Moyka, the bridges over the Neva, the bridges over the Fontanka, the canals. Bars and restaurants, cops and crooks, litany after litany of questionable characters all long forgotten or long dead. Boris knew of none of it. He’d grown up in Kursk, a town hundreds of miles away. The first St. Petersburg he had ever laid eyes on was the one he lived in now, in an airplane landing at the Tampa airport, coming from Moscow. Mother Russia had never called to him, he never yearned for it the way Yevgeny had. The yearning seemed to rip apart Yevgeney’s soul, whatever was left of it.
The small flip phone rattled a hyper, jingling tone, inappropriate for the dank room. Yevgeny stared at it for a moment with what Boris could only assume was disdain. “And why not?” thought Boris. “How could this be what anyone would want for their life?”
“Fleet Courier,” Yevgeny mumbled, “yes. Yes.”
With the tiny phone tucked between his ear and his sloping shoulder, Yevgeny scribbled with this left hand on a small pink sheet of paper.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes. Yes. No, no extra. We charge by the mile. No, no problem. Yes. Yes.”
Boris stood still, waiting.
“Yes. Yes, we do immediately,” Yevgeny said, finishing the notes on the pink slip. As his dark, sallow eyes rose from the paper to meet Boris’s eyes, he said, with no trace of favor or affection, “I put my best man on it right now.”
Towards the funeral home in south St. Petersburg, over the bridge from Tampa, he looked down at the address one more time, and the paycheck — the only reason he’d gone to see Yevgeny at dispatch in the back of an old warehouse outside of Ybor. The bank had screwed up, something about a routing number. Boris just assumed it was an excuse for Yevgeny to bring someone in to talk to.
Boris drove, listened to the radio, thought about the pickup, the route to the destination, and then how far the destination was to his home, his wife and their girl. It was a game he played with himself, a test of sorts. He usually came within a mile, and when he nailed the tenth of a mile, he would reward himself with chocolate ice cream, late at night after everyone was asleep.
“Seven point three miles,” he said out loud. It helped him remember.
The pick-up was easy. The funeral home was quiet, almost like a church. Boris stood in the doorway and waited, patient, quiet.
Finally, a woman came out with an urn adorned with pink flowers and a painted green vine. There was a gold bulb on the top, and Boris couldn’t help but think of the domes of Catherine’s Palace in old St. Petersburg. Yevgeny would have been proud. Boris fought the smile, because he was in a funeral home receiving the remains of…
Only then did it dawn on him: he didn’t know.
“Ma’am,” he asked the woman, who smiled, receptive to a question. “May I ask, do you know, who was this?”
“This,” she held the urn higher, but still in a way that Boris thought conveyed a certain respect, even love. “This is Mr. Pembell T. Jackson.” The present tense, as though it were still a man named Pembell T. Jackson and not a canister full of ashes. “He was a prominent attorney in the city.”
Then, almost without warning, she handed the urn to Boris, who took it. The weight surprised him. He tucked it into his arm, carefully.
“Do you know where you are taking it?” the woman asked carefully, quietly.
“Yes, I have the address. Thank you,” Boris smiled and turned to go.
The urn fit nicely in the seat of the Nissan, the belt buckle snug around it. The destination wasn’t far, and he began to think about home. And he thought of Yevgeny’s last words to him as he walked out the door.
Sorry, racist Yevgeny! He knew the address of the funeral home in south St. Petersburg meant driving through a tough neighborhood, a black neighborhood, yes. But Boris just felt sorry for Yevgeny.
Boris had been a courier for years. Never once did he have a problem. Still, Yevgeny threatened to fire him unless he got the concealed carry permit. Bought him a Glock, a nine millimeter. Told him to keep it loaded, keep it the glove compartment.
The day Yevgeny gave him the gun, Boris drove to the police station and turned it in.
When he thought about it, Boris felt ridiculous. All the stories Yevgeny told of old St. Petersburg gangsters? The bodies thrown in canals, the dirty deals in back rooms. The Russian mobsters gaming the system from busted stools in smoky rooms, just like Yevgeny’s dispatch. Boris figured the St. Petersburg of Mother Russia was more dangerous than his home here in America, in Florida.
Even driving for Uber — he’d been one of the first to sign up — Boris never felt in danger, had never felt threatened. His worst night was a group of drunk college kids, one of whom puked in his car, another of whom tried to climb out while he was cruising down the freeway.
Boris had often wondered who lived in the homes like this one out west, spectacular fortresses, exquisite places of an almost random excess. Who needed a garage for six cars? Who needed the vast alabaster columns reaching nearly three stories high? Who needed a grand, spiraling staircase lined with rare pink marble? Who needed a yard that had to be measured in acres? Who needed six bathrooms?
Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, apparently. And now just Mrs. Jackson.
Mrs. Jackson, who had answered the door, was old, but Boris could see that she still had a bit of fire, the last bit of energy burning in her eyes. It was a fading ember, to be sure, and when it finally faded, she would be out of this home and in some nursing facility tucked away somewhere behind old oaks and willows.
Boris stood before her in a foyer that was a quarter the size of his entire two bedroom home. The urn was cradled in his arm.
Mrs. Jackson did not look at it, but only smiled at Boris.
“May I ask a favor, young man?” she asked.
“Yes, of course,” Boris said. He was amused — young man. Boris was at the northernmost tip of his fifties, and hadn’t been described as young since… well, since he lived in Russia.
“My husband,” she said, not moving from her spot, “will you help me place him?”
Boris had long ago mastered the English language, and only a faint trace of the hard-edged accent remained. But her question threw him off. It took him a moment to realize she meant the urn.
“Ah, yes. Of course.” He looked at it as though he’d only just realized he was holding it.
“In here,” she turned and walked to the right, down a hallway Boris thought felt claustrophobic, which was weird for such a big house.
The room, Boris could see, was something special, something remarkable. It was dark, lined with dark wood bookshelves, the books themselves even darker. Gold printed words on some, faded silver lettering on others, enclosed behind glass lifting doors, it felt like a museum.
Then he noticed the walls adorned with guns on delicate wooden arms, and then the heads. Two deer, bucks with more points than Boris could count. A bear. A zebra. Something that look liked a pig, but with razor tusks and sharp, thick hair.
“Yes,” Mrs. Jackson said, quietly. “Pembell loved his hunt.” She’d seen the amazement in his eyes, the wonder in his slack jaw.
There was a fireplace with a mantle, high and flat, clean. The fireplace hadn’t been lit in years.
“Could you put him here?” Mrs. Jackson motioned to the fireplace, a good foot taller than her. It was then that Boris realized that she could not lift her arms any higher than her head.
“Ah,” he said. And he moved to the fireplace, estimated the center, and gently placed the heavy urn down with only the slightest clink of the urn against the marble top of the mantle.
Boris stepped back next to Mrs. Jackson and started to smile, admiring his work, forgetting for a moment where he was, what he was doing. He coughed nervously and looked down.
But Mrs. Jackson smiled and patted him on the arm.
“Perfect,” she said. “Perfect. Pembell would have wanted to be in here. It was his favorite room.”
Boris just smiled and nodded. He didn’t know what to say.
“Pembell loved hunting. It was his favorite thing to do after the war.” She pursed her lips, sad at the memory.
Finally, Mrs. Jackson turned and began to walk out of the room. Boris dutifully followed.
His eyes glanced at the polished desk to the right of the fireplace, papers stacked meticulously. A green lamp, a set of gold pens. Something that looked like some official stamp. Some envelopes.
He knew nothing of guns except for the ones Yevgeny described in his romanticized tales of old St. Petersburg. The heads on the walls, the pictures of an old man he assumed was Pembell Jackson, the urn, the letters and awards, none of it struck Boris as incredible or exciting.
But the gun… the gun called to him. Without touching, he felt it. Felt the rough grip in his hand, felt the cold of the black steel on his thumb, felt the heft, the weight of it.
Boris didn’t know, but it was a .45, a M1911 Remington.
It laid flat in a small gold box lined with black satin.
Boris couldn’t tell if it was loaded, unloaded.
But it called to him. It called to him. And as he slowed past the desk, the form of the old woman going around the corner to the dark hall, he reached with his left hand and grabbed it.
Like the urn, the weight impressed him. With a careful but quick motion, he tucked it into his waistband, pulled his shirt over it. The entire moment was silent, quick and easy.
He’d never stolen anything in his life.
At the door to the mansion, the old woman reached for his arm, and he jumped slightly. In a quick moment, he thought perhaps she would just reach behind him, grab the gun and empty it right into his torso and head.
But she only touched him lightly on the arm.
“Thank you,” she said, smiling. “Thank you for helping me today.”
Boris just smiled and nodded, turned to leave.
In the car, in the expanse of the white shell driveway, the gate to the road seemed a mile away. He pulled the gun and set it in the seat, not looking at it.
Blyad, he said, cursing in his native Russian for the first time in decades. Boris put the car in gear and drove to the gate. Not until he crossed the breach did he finally take a breath.
As the car rolled onto the road, the Uber app pinged.
Not far, three miles away. If he took it, it would ruin his mileage getting home. No chocolate ice cream.
But the pick-ups meant money in the bank and Boris needed the distraction. He put the gun in the glove compartment, and did his best to forget about it. He’d take it to the police station later, maybe.
The pick-up was easy. An man at a residence, to a law firm downtown. Quick trip, not expensive, but it would take his mind off the gun.
From the moment Boris saw the pick-up, he felt strange. Strange, cold and almost disconnected from himself. The young man was handsome, sharp and tall, but strong.
He was wearing a dark tweed suit, a three piece, and a sharp red tie.
“Good afternoon,” he said, getting into the car, and for a moment, Boris thought he saw the man’s breath, like frost. It was seventy degrees that day, sunny and bright.
“Good afternoon,” and Boris immediately hoped the man wouldn’t talk. Some pick-ups did, some didn’t. Boris held out hope.
The ride was quiet, but not easy. Suddenly, the palms Boris had come to love felt looming and oppressive. The sun burst through the windshield and his eyes stung. His breath felt shallow against the cold air from the car’s vents. Each bump in the road was a violent assault
The man in the suit said nothing, smiling only slightly.
How now, Boris wondered, would the gun be good to him now? In the glove compartment, nearly blocked by the man’s knees. He felt foolish, awful.
Downtown seemed like an eternity away.
The address wasn’t the old post office, but at the light just before, the man in the suit said, “This’ll be fine, right up here.” And Boris saw the spot to pull to, to let the pick-up out, finally.
“Warm day. Beautiful day,” the man said, looking down as Boris put the car in park.
“Yes,” said Boris, whispering it. Everything was wrong. Boris’ body contracted against the universe.
“Warm day. Beautiful day,” the man said again, this time slowly turning his head to Boris, looking at him, taking him all in.
Boris gasped. The man’s eyes were all black. No white, no color. Just empty, soulless black masses, shimmering, cold, eternal.
The sun went behind a cloud and the world got dark.
Boris tried to breath and couldn’t, felt his throat contract.
“Warm day here,” the man in the dark suit said. “But, let me tell you, it was cold on the Russian front. Could use this.” the man popped the handle to the glove compartment, and the black and brown .45 fell to his right hand. He tucked it into his jacket pocket.
The dark eyes glistened a moment longer, and Boris felt tears well in his own eyes.
“I will give your regards to Kursk, Boris,” the smile from the man revealed yellowed teeth that seemed like fangs.
Boris held back a scream, shut his eyes tight, and let out a coughing sob instead.
When he opened them, the man in the suit was gone.
© 2016 by Benjamin J. Kirby
All rights reserved.